March 29, 1971: “26 hour chronicle of Dacca drama”

A diary through the eyes of Robert Kaylor of UPI of what happened
in Dacca when the Pakistani Army took control.

U.P.I. report, Hongkong, March 29, 1971

The following is a diary through the eyes of Robert Kaylor of UPI of what happened in Dacca when the Pakistani Army took control.


11 p. m. Thursday March 25 : I go downstairs to the hotel lobby with a cable I have just written about a statement by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman warning of ” grave consequences ” if action against the population by the army continues. I am planning to take a taxi to the cable office to file it but I find a crowd miling around in the lobby. There are soldiers in battle dress ; helmets and carrying weapons outside. The hotel staff is placing a blackboard with the notice, ” Please do not go outside, ” chalked on it in front of the door,

Someone has left a copy of a statement by the Sheikh calling for a general strike on Saturday pasted to the blackboard. Other correspondents say they have been ordered back inside the building by the soldiers when they tried to leave. The captain in charge of the guards says that anyone who goes outside will be shot.


11.15 p.m. : Everyone is trying to figure out what is happening. One theory is that the guards are there to protect West Pakistani political figure Zhulfikar Ali Bhutto, who is hated in Bangla Desh and is staying on the top floor of the hotel • Another theory is that a military coup is under way because President Yahya Khan has not taken a hard enough line to suit some generals. As time passes, it begins to look more like coup. Convoy’s of troops are seen passing the hotel twice during the evening.

I have tried to call the personal number of a key aide to the President to check on rumours that he has left Dacca and someone has picked up the receiver on the other end and hung it up again without speaking. I call a loal news agency and ask if they have any idea what has happened. They don’t and cannot leave their office.


Bangla Desh Flag Burnt

Midnight : Some British diplomats arrive. They say they were on their way home from a party and were stopped by soldiers and then brought to the hotel. They have seen army road blocks at various places around the city. A Bengali who lives downtown telephones and says that hundreds of civilians are pouring into the area, some of them armed with wooden staves, iron rods and other makeshift weapons. I reach Asrar Ahmad, a Pakistani correspondent for UPI. He is also trapped in his hotel and cannot get to the cable office. Soldiers outside the hotel pull down the Bangla Desh flag and burn it.


12.50 a.m. : After several tries, a phone call gets through to Sheikh Mujib’s home and political headquarters. The unidentified person who answers the phone says the Sheikh is at the house and that the Awami League has road blocks on approaches to it. He says they have heard that two Awami League volunteers have been killed by soldiers at one road block. Calls to western diplomats show that they have been unable to find out what is happening either.


1 a.m. : The Bengali who called earlier calls back and says that he hears the sounds of machineguns in the downtown area. He has shut himself in his house. A short time later the telephones go dead. Sounds of automatic weapons fire begin to be heard clearly punctuated by heavier explosions. Later, I see some recoilless rifles mounted on army jeeps.


3 a.m. : Soldiers carrying torches are seen going toward the offices of ” The People ” newspaper near the hotel. There is some shouting and firing and the office is set on fire. ” The People ” is an English language newspaper which has been highly critical of the Government. Later, there are more sounds of firing near the hotel and what sounds like shouts and cheers but I cannot see what is going on from where I am. Heavy firing continues in all directions.


Columns of Smoke


Sunrise : The firing has quietened down and the streets are deserted. A huge column of smoke rises from the direction of the university. If troops have attacked there with heavy weapons, the carnage will be tremendous. The students at the university live in dormitories that hold about 400 each.


7 a.m.: Several of us go up to the 11th floor where Bhutto is staying. There are two of his bodyguards carrying assault rifles standing in the hallway. A member of Bhutto’s party comes into the hall and says they have no idea what has happened. He says Bhutto is asleep and instructions are to wake him at 7-30.


8 a.m. : A radio broadcast carries a report from Karachi that President Yahya has returned to West Pakistan and will broadcast to the nation at 8 p.m. tonight The coup theory appears to be debunked. The telephones are still out.


8-30 a.m.: Word passes that Bhutto is leaving as a car and a camouflaged military bus appear outside the lobby. Soldiers pour into the lobby, Bhutto appears, wearing gray Suit and blue tie, but won’t say anything. He keeps repeat­ing ” I have no comment to make ” as he strides out his car. His bodyguards get in on either side of him and stick the muzzbs of their rifles out the window. The way they constantly keep their fingers on the trigger makes everybody nervous.

An aide to Bhutto says that when his advisers returned from a meeting at the Presidential residence at 5 p.m., the day before, they knew that chances for a political settlement were dead. It isn’t clear whether this is because Bhutto doesn’t agree with the agreement that Yahya and the Sheikh reached or whether Yahya has been getting pressure from the army. Bhutto’s people probably want it thought that it was because their boss didn’t agree.

We trail out onto the sidewalk as Bhutto departs and soldiers order us inside. A lieutenant colonel says we cannot leave the hotel. The captain in charge tells a staff member of the hotel in Urdu that he doesn’t care whether we are foreigners or not. He will shoot us if we don’t go inside. We go back inside. The captain tells the assistant manager of the hotel, a Pakistani, that he will be shot if a Pakistan flag is not raised within 15 minutes.

Then he leaves. Hotel employees produce a Pakistan flag and try to raise it, but are forbidden to go outside by soldiers. Apparently all armies are alike.


9 a.m. : A radio broadcast says that a 24-hours curfew is in effect and that anyone on the street will be shot on sight. It says a special announcement will be made at 10 a.m. The hotel manages to produce a cook from somewhere who makes coffee and breakfast for those who want it.


10 a.m.: The flag is raised on the hotel roof. The hotel manager, a German, grins and says, ” We keep all kinds of flags handy. ” The special announcement turns out to be a series of martial law orders, but the curfew is not mentioned.


Firing at Random


Noon: From upstairs windows you can see patrols of jeeps and tanks moving through the deserted streets. They appear to be firing at random. As they go there are two more big smoke columns, one of them looking as though it is coming from the part of downtown where the Awami League office is. It is frustrating to see all this and not be able to communicate it to the outside world. Shortwave radio news broadcasts show that no word of the army’s move has yet reached the outside world.


12.30 p.m.: The lieutenant colonel who talked to us earlier comes back and decides that we can use the swimming pool to while away the time. He issues orders that foreigners only can use the pool and that Pakistanis must stay inside. He won’t answer questions about what is happening in the city or at the university and says ” relax, have a swim, enjoy yourselves. ” The afternoon passes quietly with occasional sounds of gunfire. A new column of smoke appears on the southern edge of the city. You can see flames billowing upward in this one as the sun goes down.


8.15 p.m.: I go down to the lobby after listening to Yahya’s radio speech calling Sheikh Mujib’s non-co-operation movement an “act of treason” and banning his Awami League and find the lobby deserted. Correspondents have been ordered to leave and bundled into army trucks for the airport as the speech was starting. Somehow I was missed. Troops at the hotel call for a patrol to take me to the airport. The patrol is -a jeep driven by a mustachioed young lieutenant in a flat, world war I style helmet followed by a weapons carrier filled with troops. They put my suitcase into the weapons carrier. The lieutenant asks his radio operator to go to the back seat of the jeep and I climb in next to him.


Houses Shuttered


I ask how long he thinks the situation will continue and he says that he just follows orders. Then, he adds suddenly, that “Everything will work out all right here “. He turns to me and grins, “We will fix these people,” he says.


1 p.m.: I get my customs check and the inspector tells me he is under “special orders” when I tell him that we were already checked in Dacca. He confiscates my notebooks, carbon copies of cables I have filed from Dacca, newspaper clippings and any scraps of paper he can find in my suitcase, including letters from my wife. He then seizes 14 rolls of unexposed film I have in my camera bag and puts everything in brown manila envelopes. When I ask about it, he says it will be sent to me by mail. I ask when, and he shrugs his shoulders. ” Later “, he says. He declines to issue a receipt.


1-45 p.m.: I catch my flight to Bombay and consider myself lucky that although I have lost my notebooks, I still have a story which I wrote before leaving Dacca in my hip pocket. One other correspondent on the plane was subjected to a personal search and lost the copy he had hidden.


(U.P.I. REPORT, Hongkong-March 29, 1971.)

Source: Bangladesh Documents, vol – I, page no – 382 – 385